Off Balance On
[The forward to The Long and Short of It, published by Spuyten Duyvil.]
rests, barely, on a single line
a kind of balance of terror
humans must hold out their arms
and endure this balance—
a moment’s dizziness
will tilt your whole life
—Tamura Ryuichi, “Perhaps a Great Poem”
For the past two years I have replaced poetry with water: instead of writing poems I’ve spent the equivalent energies learning white water kayaking. I don’t anticipate that the necessary white water skills—disciplined attention, balance, flexibility, intuiting the instant transference of feeling to knowledge to action—will help me write poems again, but it has helped me to read poetry more critically, and to better appreciate the poetry of Stephen Ellis.
Tamura Ryuichi shows us how seriously poets must approach their craft but also how serious it is for the reader of the poem: both writing and reading demand the skills of the tightrope walker. And there is no net; this is not pre-formed writing (or reading), not academic, not sectarian, not based upon any dogma. Ellis’ poetry “will tilt your whole life” if you approach it with what the Zen teachers call the beginner’s mind. Each reading of the poems matches the writing, an opening of one’s self to the process that makes possible the product. This “moment’s dizziness” is, if we can maintain this beginner’s mind, familiar to us all each time we walk: to stay upright we fall, catch ourselves up, and fall again, a continual act of opposing dynamics of falling forward then back, resulting in an equilibrium only possible through the process. As in kayaking (skiing, cycling), motion maintains the necessary dynamic stability. John Clarke, the poet Ellis seems most to have learned from, quoting Novalis, says of the process: “Activity is the faculty of receiving.”
What passes for Zen poetry, the imitation Frog-Pond-Plop poems that attempt to reproduce in language an experience of immediacy, is not what Ellis is up to. He is, instead, doing something much more difficult, allowing the reader entrance into the process that allows for such immediacy, not a passive voyeuristic peep at the product. And the opening of the mind that Ellis’ poetry demands, the hard knocks at preconceived notions and meanings clinging to familiar perceptions, is also, necessarily, a moral act, leading not deeper into mental categories but instead to the Heart. Novalis’ line is apt here, as Clarke was fond of quoting it, inscribed in my copy of FromFeathers to Iron, “the product of the process is the opposite of the End.” Felt thought, Alfred North Whitehead’s organic philosophy of feeling, and the Romantic “Intelligence of the Heart” join Ellis with Clarke, Whitehead, Keats, and Zen in that the source of love is an awakened mind. As Clarke says of it: “Only the intervention of love can undo what is done.” Knowledge, arising from practice, allows us to excuse ourselves from the round of necessity. Karma. Clarke, in the sentence following the one above, places the priority on truth: “There is no vectorial order except between human beings who have decided what constitutes a ‘true saying’.” And Ellis’ poetry is nothing if not true sayings.
What then is a true saying in poetry? It is certainly not identity poetics, witness poetry, academic careerism, l-a-n-g-u-a-g-e posturing, or any variety of second-hand marxism. The last lines from his “PRAEUDIUM: Signature”: “fact of knowing incompletely while realizing / mortality comes to be the matter of / a nonsense practiced every day.” Nonsense because poetry is essentially artifice, imposing limits on language to unlock the ordinary mind from perception guided by the limitations that are not consciously imposed, as if, for instance, only those who have experienced directly (what does that word mean?) the horrors of war can write anti-war poetry (as if war is not an extension of all of our lives), or only Blacks can sing the blues (as if Jonny Lang, a fifteen year old white boy from North Dakota hasn’t Soul), as if to be only personal could be truly political.
Clarke, using the anthropologist Weston LaBarre, asks: “The problem is, how much method is needed to keep one from lying?” Which is another way of asking, what is the source of poetry? It is not the preconceived and pre-packaged response to experience; it is the authentic experience as it reveals itself through writing. William Carlos Williams: “A writer is a person whose best is released in the accomplishment of writing—perhaps it is a good variant to say—in the act of writing.” This is Ellis’ achievement, but this is not to say that his writing comes from nothing. This is total work, involving, as it must, his total activity.
Unlike the academic marxist poets (“My daddy worked in a factory. Ain’t capitalism hell”), Ellis is a worker-poet. His very intellectual poetry arises directly from his very intellectual work as house painter, carpenter, mechanic. Marx and his followers split consciousness, the intelligence of the hand and body from the mind, making the source of value physical labor measured by time tied to money. The result has been not only the collapse of anti-capital critique, analysis, and protest, but also endless volumes of poetry, fake poems arising out of false intentions. The writing center was moved out into the street by poets with no street sense, having been weaned only on books, never understanding that manual labor is never only hand labor, that a good mechanic, like a good writer, has always his head in hand. Instead of a poet posturing, whose work arises out of false consciousness, we have a man who works with his hands and mind, whether painting houses or sanding floors or laying tile or writing poems. Mind and hand together, impossible to split.
In “The Day So Sweet With Braiding Calm” Ellis gives us this clue:
...the gesture of recognition, that we are alive though to no extent more than
what language through time in us would seem to measure as a music
revealing the condition of
where, and how, fluency thus seeks its level.
And the seemingly effortless, long lines of Ellis’ poetry recall to mind the connection between fluent and fluid. The good kayakers paddle with little effort. They allow the medium to be the message: the flowing water propels the boat where the boater wants to go. Direction is what separates the good from the mediocre boaters. Ellis writes poetry like the expert boaters use a stern draw to ferry across current: with the right angle, the right lean, and just the right pressure on the blade, the boat moves and takes the paddlers along with it. Admirers of Charles Olson’s poetry referred to it as the O boat. While I’m reading the poems I admire most, I ride the E boat. With just the right attention to his intent, the right pressure placed against the flow of his line, (with my trusty Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary), it takes me where I want to go.